What Attawapiskat taught me about reporting in Indigenous communities
Nic Meloney brought back more than video from a trip to the James Bay Cree community.
In February of this year, Jorge Barrera and I met up in Timmins, Ont., and flew north along James Bay to the Cree community of Attawapiskat First Nation.
Those who recognize its name might recall the deluge of national news reports on the community's state of emergency in the spring of 2016, triggered by youth suicides and suicide ideation.
Journalists swept in, reported on that dark, dark period in Attawapiskat and anything that may have led to it, then left.
Two years later, Jorge and I were making the same flight as those reporters. We'd be sleeping at the same inn, asking the same questions about wifi signals, where to eat, where to look for answers. We'd do our work, and then we'd be leaving, too. I remember feeling uneasy that as reporters, we'd be associated with the community's painful memories.
Recalling the trip from my desk in Nova Scotia, I'm beginning to think I brought back more than just sound and video from Attawapiskat.
I left with a better understanding of what's required in good reporting on Indigenous communities: respect.
No place to call their own
Our plan was to find out what had taken place in the months and years after officials on Parliament Hill made promises to help. We were going there not to find stories of a crisis, but of a crisis's lingering effects. The trip was about accountability.
Ottawa promised a permanent youth centre, but it hadn't arrived.
Young people in Attawapiskat have asked for youth & healing centres where the community can come together. Work on these begins immediately.—@JustinTrudeau
There was an evening youth group meeting at the parish hall around the corner from where we stayed, so we decided to go.
As I pulled on my boots with some difficulty, (I was wearing three pairs of socks) the innkeeper came into the porch and handed me a warm piece of fry bread slathered with sweetened butter. I'd already eaten two pieces, but this one was to "keep me warm," she said, and we left for the parish hall.
We swung open the door and were greeted by driving pop music and laughter. A group of teenagers was inside, jostling to pick the next song, learning how to make dream catchers, making pizzas and just being themselves.
This weekly arts night is organized by Jackie Hookimaw-Witt and her husband Norbert Witt. It's a necessity, they said, because there are so few initiatives to target youth mental health.
The teens welcomed us graciously and were surprisingly candid. Some of them made kissy-face noises and hollered jokes at a pair that were dating. Then, soon after, spoke solemnly about years of drug abuse and friends who had died.
They told us they were worried about their little sisters, brothers and cousins' futures. They were worried about the drugs, the booze, the bad thoughts. Many of them expressed the same frustration — they've got nowhere to hang out. No place to call their own, to make their mark.
I recall not saying much as Jorge and I trudged back to the inn. I'd had a good time hanging with them. I saw my teenage self and my friends in their pizza sauce smiles, the goofy dancing and absent-minded craft making.
Keeping the truck warm
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church is the tallest, and likely one of the oldest buildings in Attawapiskat. Its bell tower is an easy landmark to look for through the trees as you approach the community on the winter ice road or from the air.
I convinced Jorge to brave the finger-numbing wind with me up there. The sun was setting, so it was the golden hour for shooting some landscapes of the community from up high.
Our fixer and driver, J.P. Nakogee, chose to stay below and keep the truck warm while we climbed up.
J.P.'s presence was one of the most memorable elements of our trip. He and I made a quick rapport over a mutual appreciation for photography and camera gear. We laughed a lot as we drove around between visits and interviews, but he was incredibly respectful of our job.
He was quiet for much of the time, ensuring he was always off-camera, careful not to disrupt interviews. He told us later that he'd learned some things about his community, listening to officials talk with us. That was good news; it meant we were doing our job.
So, Jorge and I climbed that church bell tower and captured a rare, bird's eye view of Attawapiskat. In a way, I think that was symbolic of our privilege and responsibility as journalists, reporting in Indigenous communities.
We often lean on the kindness of the people in our stories, even in their worst moments, to help us capture those rare perspectives and share it with the Canadian public. It's incumbent on us to recognize and respect their grace. To go back and follow up, to reconnect.
Having climbed down from that metaphorical bell tower in Attawapiskat, back in Nova Scotia now, I'm still grateful for the view and for the people like J.P., who keep the truck warm.